Japan's 'Lonely Deaths': A Business Opportunity

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In the 1990s, Taichi Yoshida, the owner of a small moving company in Osaka, Japan, began noticing that many of his jobs involved people who had just died. Families of the deceased were either too squeamish to pack up for their dead relatives, or there wasn't any family to call on. So Yoshida started a new business cleaning out the homes of the dead. Then he started noticing something else: thick, dark stains shaped like a human body, the residue of liquids excreted by a decomposing corpse.

These, he learned, were kodokushi, or "lonely deaths." Now he has seen plenty — these deaths make up 300 of the 1,500 cleaning jobs performed by his company each year. The people die alone, sprawled on the floor beside crumpled clothing and dirty dishes, tucked beneath flowery bedspreads, slouched against the wall. Months — even years — can pass before somebody notices a body. On occasion, all that's left are bones. "The majority of lonely deaths are people who are kind of messy," says Yoshida. "It's the person who, when they take something out, they don't put it back; when something breaks, they don't fix it; when a relationship falls apart, they don't repair it."

In Japan, kodokushi, a phenomenon first described in the 1980s, has become hauntingly common. In 2008 in Tokyo, more than 2,200 people over 65 died lonely deaths, according to statistics from the city's Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health. The deaths most often involve men in their 50s and the nation's rapidly increasingly elderly population. Today, 1 in 5 Japanese is over 65; by 2030 it will be 1 in 3. With senior citizens increasingly living away from family and a nationwide shortage of nursing homes, many are now living alone. "There is a kind of myth that older people in Japan are living in three-generational families, but that's not so anymore," says Takako Sodei, a gerontologist with Ochanomizu University in Tokyo.

Japan's two-decade economic slump is not helping. The collapse of the bubble economy after 1990 shrunk the size of Japanese firms and led to a restructuring that is still playing out today. The percentage of the workforce employed in part-time, temporary and contract work has tripled since 1990, forcing workaholic Japanese businessmen, many of whom never married, into a lonely early retirement. "Their world has evaporated under their feet," says Scott North, an Osaka University sociologist who studies Japanese work life. "The firm has been everything for these men. Their sense of manliness, their social position, their sense of self is all rooted in the corporate structure."

Several years ago, Tokyo's bustling Shinjuku ward began a lonely-death awareness campaign. It hosts social events to draw people from their apartments, distributes a newsletter to the elderly and monitors their well-being by, for example, checking to make sure they're taking out their trash. Other wards have followed suit, but as accurate lonely-death statistics are often unavailable, success is difficult to measure. "If you live alone, it's inevitable that you may die alone," says Yoko Yokota, assistant supervisor of the ward's division for senior-citizen services. "What Shinjuku ward wants to do is increase the chance that people will notice."

As lonely deaths have continued, Yoshida's work has gained nationwide attention. A recent novel based on his life may be turned into a movie, and a television series about his business is also in the works, but not everyone regards his service as a good thing. Several hundred years ago, the Japanese witnessed death regularly, with bodies buried by family members and samurai displaying severed heads in public. These days, such moments are rare. Such ceremonies would give "an opportunity to think about the dead person," says Masaki Ichinose, a University of Tokyo philosopher and head of the university's Institute of Death and Life Studies, founded in 2002 to encourage more national conversation on death.

Building a business around the dead, as Yoshida has, is an unglamorous and oft-maligned profession, as depicted in Departures, the Japanese film that won an Oscar last year for Best Foreign Film, which follows an unemployed cellist who takes a job getting corpses ready for funerals. "The film has created interest in this profession," says Ichinose, "but most people still tend to avoid the topic."

Ichinose speculates that the kodokushi trend might be connected to Japan's contemporary cultural habit of ignoring death, and a possible avenue of research for the Institute of Death and Life Studies. "I don't know why," he says, "but people don't want to see a dead body and, in general, they don't want to talk about death."